Illegals employed to fight fires

Inexperienced, undocumented aliens hired by private contractors

As bright orange embers lofted through the forest, exploding into columns of smoke and flame, Mike Sulffridge and his crew of firefighters began to scramble. Their lives were in danger.

But the reaction of six Latino firefighters working near them could not have been more different. Despite the advancing flames, despite a volley of warning shouts, they did nothing.

"They did not understand English," said Sulffridge, who was hired to battle the wildfire in the Fishlake National Forest in Utah in 2000. "They did not understand what the fire was doing."

Ultimately, the men were rescued. But the fire took a toll. One man was burned badly across his face. "In another few seconds, those guys would have been burned up," Sulffridge said. "They would have died."

Firefighting has always been dangerous. But today, with the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies hiring more private contractors to do the work, a different kind of firefighter is in harm's way: migrant workers who have minimal experience and training, speak little or no English and often are in the country illegally.

Public records offer a glimpse of what crew inspectors have documented: underage workers, counterfeit IDs, falsified training records, a van roll-over, broken and dangerous tools, even a firefighter with only one lung who "went into convulsions ... and was having difficulty breathing," as one federal inspector in Washington put it.

"There's got to be more checks, more accountability and more consequences," said Joe Ferguson, a former Forest Service incident commander who was shocked by problems he encountered involving Latino firefighting crews in 2002.

"The work force in the country is changing - and we have to change with it," Ferguson said. "But that doesn't mean we have to compromise safety in the process."

Fewer than a dozen contractors are responsible for most of the problems. Despite that, they are rehired year after year by the government - frustrating contractors with better safety records.

"There should have been a three strikes and you're out rule adopted 10 years ago," said Nelda Herman, president of GH Ranch L.L.C., an Oregon fire contractor. "We'd be better off today."

In March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General sharply criticized the Forest Service for chronic mismanagement of Latino contract crews.

The audit said the Forest Service had failed to ensure that Latino firefighters are properly qualified and trained - or even that they are legal.

"Undocumented workers are a problem on contract firefighting crews," it said.

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